It’s no earth-shattering observation that television is doing a lot these days. Every week, sometimes every day of the week, brings with it a new high-profile series, or a much-anticipated continuation of a high-profile series, or perhaps a high-profile limited series, or maybe yet another high-profile true-crime adaptation or IP brand extension. Even a “slow” month of television can be expected to produce a half-dozen shows that you simply must watch right now because you know it’s all anyone will be talking about!
But the tension between quantity and quality is always present in this endless smorgasbord, and just because a show is provoking discussion and memes doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a great representation of the medium or attempting to push it forward in interesting ways. So while acknowledging that there will always be an appeal to dissecting a noisy TV spectacle in exacting detail, that is not our primary objective here. This regularly updated monthly list, maintained by Vulture critics Jen Chaney, Roxana Hadadi, and Kathryn VanArendonk, is dedicated to the shows that may or may not have risen above the constant din but have nonetheless proven themselves representative of the best television has to offer: a freshman network comedy that’s already firing on all cylinders, an auteurist dramedy ending a phenomenal run in peak form, a stylish and original mystery-box thriller, and more. Together, they comprise a small slice of a massive pie, but it’s that slice that’s keeping us hungry for whatever television serves up next.
All shows are listed by U.S. premiere date.
We love to see a network sitcom take the TV world by storm, and we especially love to see it when that network sitcom is funny and smart and made by someone as talented as Quinta Brunson, Abbott Elementary’s creator and star. It has been a while since a network series of any kind has penetrated with linear, Nielsen-style viewership numbers and an extremely online audience, but Abbott has managed to do both. The series, about the teachers and students at a Philadelphia school, has revived the mockumentary format in a way that leaves room for drama among the adults and small moments of social commentary (with stories about school funding, gifted programs, and teaching to the test). At its best, Abbott feels like classic sitcom storytelling from decades ago: a show that insists on the specific, grounded details of its world while also being built for an enormous audience. Plus there’s the joy of watching a character like Principal Coleman (Janelle James) come into her own, because Abbott’s success means we’ll probably get to enjoy her for a long, long time. —Kathryn VanArendonk
The Righteous Gemstones, Season Two
The Righteous Gemstones should not be funny. Megachurch televangelists vie for even more power, fame, and fortune? Ugh. But no one finds the beating heart of a posturing, selfish asshole like Danny McBride, and his series clicked into fully realized, consistently hilarious life in its second season. Over nine episodes, McBride and the flawless ensemble he has assembled brought humanity and vulgarity to an ever-absurd story line involving a group of motorcycle-riding assassins out to murder Gemstone patriarch Eli (John Goodman), Eli’s past in the Memphis wrestling scene, and a journalist sniffing around the Gemstones’ finances. If casting judgment for adultery, murder, and greed is the Lord’s work, as the Gemstones believe, then forgiveness for those misdeeds belongs to us. And after providing laughs at baptism rompers, toilet babies, and musclemen, the camaraderie and loyalty that The Righteous Gemstones emphasizes among its characters is its own kind of empathy. —Roxana Hadadi
Bridget Everett’s HBO series about small-town Kansas and the feeling of being an adult misfit was a gorgeous way to kick off the year in television. Everett’s character, Sam, is not a straightforward fictionalized version of herself, although the parallels are certainly there. Sam is much less self-assured, though, and has spent much of her life since high school trying to shape herself to fit other people’s expectations and needs. As a result, Somebody Somewhere is a gorgeous, loving, often hilarious depiction of midwestern, small-town culture — everything about Sam’s sister, Tricia (Mary Catherine Garrison), is perfection, as is her friend Joel (Jeff Hiller) — but it’s also a really moving story about how hard it is to make yourself at home somewhere when it’s supposedly been your home from the beginning. —K.V.A.
It’s difficult not to think that Amazon Prime Video did As We See It a disservice by releasing the show’s eight episodes all at once in late January. Jason Katims’s series about three 20-somethings on the autism spectrum trying to navigate the personal and professional challenges of adulthood is thoughtfully nuanced and surprisingly funny, with a flair for unexpected scenarios that poke at whatever preconceived notions viewers might hold about this community. Rick Glassman, Albert Rutecki, and Sue Ann Pien, who all identify as neurodivergent, fully embody their characters’ singular arcs, while Sosie Bacon adds both compassion and friction as the roommates’ aide. The series’s emotional rawness and pervasive honesty build up in that typical Katims way until your only option is to cry and cry, and a slower rollout might have let that atmosphere breathe. Still, whatever your viewing schedule ends up being, As We See It is worth your time. —R.H.
As much as the media has covered Bill Cosby’s assaults on women, as a culture we haven’t fully reconciled our reverence for his body of work with our disdain for his decades-long history of drugging and preying on women. W. Kamau Bell, who directs this four-part Showtime docuseries, forces that conversation by assembling academics, journalists, people who worked alongside Cosby, and survivors of his assaults to discuss his legacy and how it has been diminished, if not fully destroyed, by the crimes he committed. These are difficult conversations, and Bell guides them with intelligence and empathy. He also lays out Cosby’s assaults and cultural achievements on a timeline that fully drives home that, as one interview subject puts it, as much as we thought we knew Cosby, we didn’t really know him at all. —Jen Chaney
A high-concept puzzle that finds horror in self-sabotage and unexpected inspiration in self-help, Severance might be Apple TV+’s first great drama. (No disrespect to For All Mankind, which grew into excellence, but Severance burst out of the gate with it.) Creator Dan Erickson has created an uncanny world where the division between our work and personal selves can be made permanent; where our two halves live in abstract, pained separation from each other; and where any hope of reconciliation is crushed by the shadowy corporate overlords that created this surgical procedure in the first place. Every one of the season’s nine episodes is grounded by a compelling lead performance from Adam Scott, who pivots easily between bleakness and buoyancy, and the atmosphere is fantastically unsettling thanks to the direction of Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle. Severance could go anywhere, and the possibilities built into storytelling this confident are thrilling to imagine. —R.H.
Pamela Adlon’s observant dramedy about the life of Adlon alter ego Sam Fox was painting a vibrant picture of a middle-aged woman long before And Just Like That … tried to do a version of the same thing. But Better Things is practically the opposite of And Just Like That … in that it’s fully realistic and unfolds according to the rhythms of actual life. In its fifth and final season, the series, also directed and co-written by Adlon, drops its audience into various scenarios involving Sam, her three children, and the friends and family members who surround them, then invites viewers to soak in all the details. There is something simple and beautiful about the show’s casual, rambling quality, whether that involves tagging along with the whole family on a trip to England or witnessing an argument between Sam and her kids about giving up cell phones for a week. Better Things is a low-key, joyful, and enriching pleasure, and when this season ends, it will be deeply missed. —J.C.
Too many of this year’s shows about scammers are underwhelming. Sure, they’re fun, and if that’s what you’re looking for, it’ll still hit the spot, but an okayish scam show is still just an okayish TV experience. The obvious exception is The Dropout, one of the few shows in 2022’s slew of scam dramas to actually nail what makes this kind of story so interesting. Amanda Seyfried’s performance as Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes is mesmerizing, largely because it’s a portrait of Holmes slowly becoming the famous failed CEO. The guest cast is stellar (Laurie Metcalf!), the slow build to the company’s collapse is great, and it manages to find a tone that is neither too grave nor too light. And the music! The Dropout, baby — you’re a firework. —K.V.A.
When Atlanta’s “Robbin’ Season” aired in 2018, it succeeded as a layered consideration of the morality of theft under capitalism and amid racism, and those dense concepts, as well as Atlanta’s satirical handling of them, are still present as the series relocates to Europe in its third installment. A self-assured anthology structure allows series creator and star Donald Glover and his regular collaborators (including brother Stephen, a writer on the show, and director Hiro Murai) to revisit the lives of Earn, Alfred, Darius, and Van as they wander around Europe a year or so after the events of the preceding season, while also crafting standalone episodes that draw out the absurdity, violence, and self-involvement with which white people treat race. Swap in “scammin’” for “robbin,’” and this third season snaps into focus — in particular the nightmarish premiere “Three Slaps,” which fictionalizes the 2018 Hart family murders, and the symbiotic dynamic between Earn, a wealthy investor, an uninspiring artist, and a silent ghost in “The Old Man and the Tree.” In the four years since Atlanta was last on the air, no other series has matched its unique weirdness and pointed insights, and this season so far only emphasizes that singularity. —RH
We tend to think of romance in terms of scale, and it’s usually about extremes. It is either massive (grand, sweeping romance that is life-changing and earth-shaking and huge) or it’s tiny (intimate, gemlike, precious, rare). Starstruck’s remarkable quality is that it is simply life-size. Its humor and emotional range is dialed precisely for the experience of love in the real world. It can be devastating and thrilling and all of those impressively scaled things, but the world of Starstruck, and especially its lead creator and actor, Rose Matafeo, is unmistakably built for people. They make plausible mistakes and get into stupid arguments, and their misunderstandings and jealousies are hilarious and sharp, while also being humane and grounded. The only thing wrong with Starstruck’s scale is that it is always over too soon. —KVA
The danger of telling a generational story is overly predictive tidiness and the tendency to tie together our past, present, and future along rigid, unassailable lines. “There’s a curse in my blood,” says a mother early on in Apple TV+’s Pachinko, and a lesser show would take this statement as prescriptive. But Soo Hugh’s adaptation of the same-named 2017 novel by Min Jin Lee shakes up the source material’s linear narrative by incorporating flashbacks that consider what endures and what is lost to time, and that reframe that “curse” for each generation that Pachinko follows. Is the curse the colonial rule under which that young Sunja in Japanese-occupied Korea in the early 20th century? Is it the racism that her grandson Solomon endures in corporate New York City more than 70 years later? Is it how we move away from our cultures and our families in pursuit of “success”? Pachinko floats all these possibilities with poignant scripts from Hugh, gorgeous cinematography and direction from Kogonada and Justin Chon, and a deep ensemble led by Yuh-jung Youn as the grandmother version of Sunja. The white-rice-preparation scene in “Chapter Four”? I’m going to need some time to wipe away all these tears. —RH
Julia, the HBO Max series starring the charming Sarah Lancashire, is sort of a biography of Julia Child. Yes, Lancashire plays Child, and the series is about the moment in her life when she swiftly changed from being an unknown cookbook author to a beloved TV personality. At its heart, though, Julia isn’t really about Child’s life. It’s a workplace show set in the 1960s that considers how to create public television that people will actually want to watch. It’s also about Child’s role in culture, about her role as an early TV personality and her feelings toward fame and feminism, but Julia handles those ideas with a fairly light touch. Its strongest draw is the pleasure of witnessing a remarkable person care about something, and how fun it is to watch her friends take a great deal of joy in helping her pull it off. —KVA
Better Call Saul, Season Six
The first part of the sixth and final season of Better Call Saul opens with an ambitious, mesmerizing tour through the mansion of Saul Goodman–slash–Jimmy McGill as movers pack up his many gaudy belongings. It’s so deliberate, intricate, and rife with Easter eggs that it begs to be rewatched and studied. That’s just the first five minutes of the season, but the same rules apply to practically every scene in this prequel, which is heading toward a conclusion that will finally, hopefully, explain what happens to Jimmy’s wife, Kim Wexler (the brilliant Rhea Seehorn), to make her (seemingly?) absent from his life by the time of Breaking Bad. In the meantime, we get more of some of the most impeccable television currently airing or streaming. The acting, writing, direction: It’s all deliberate and rich with detail and subtext. This is a prestige drama about people who make bad choices and do wicked things that doesn’t wallow in its own self-importance. It has nothing to prove at this point but nevertheless proves how exceptional it is, episode after episode. —J.C.
Barry, Season Three
Barry has always been dark. As the titular hit man turned actor turned hit man, Bill Hader has long walked along a thin precipice, dipping into vulnerability or rage as the character requires. What’s new about the third season, and Hader’s exceptional writing, directing, and acting work within it, is the sense that we’ve reached the point of no return: the rock bottom that our very anti-hero can either crawl up from or be buried under. Nearly three years after the series’s second season ended with Barry going on a killing spree, things pick back up with Hader’s character in a professional and romantic rut because of his myriad betrayals. He can’t connect with girlfriend Sally (Sarah Goldberg), whose aloofness is only exacerbated by her Hollywood success, while his acting coach Gene (Henry Winkler) and former friend, Chechen mobster NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan), want nothing more to do with Barry because of his backstabbing and lies. It’s all incredibly bleak, but Barry punctures that cynicism often with clever sight gags, Carrigan’s enthusiastic line deliveries, and a smirking mockery of the entertainment industry. And grounding it all is Hader’s ability to turn on a dime emotionally while still conveying the moral weight of his addiction to death, unlike, say, Ozark. When Barry pleads to Hank, “I need a purpose,” it’s a fragile moment of self-awareness — but the discomfiting power of Barry is in how it never once pretends that all guiding motivations are good. —R.H.
There is such an overwhelming amount of TV these days that Gaslit, starring movie stars Julia Roberts, Sean Penn, and Dan Stevens in a ’70s period piece about the Nixon administration’s scrambling during the Watergate scandal, seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle. That’s a shame given that each of those three and the literal dozens of character actors surrounding them are having a grand time sneering, screaming, and scheming through writer Robbie Pickering and director Matt Ross’s portrait of American politics gone to rot. There are layers of camp, intentional and unintentional, in these broad performances, particularly that of scene-stealer Shea Whigham as zealot Nixon operative G. Gordon Liddy. (His dyed-black mustache and slicked-back hair are enough to communicate This guy’s bad news before he even opens his mouth to deliver gritted-teeth diatribes against anyone who isn’t a white Republican man.) But Liddy is just one part of a massive machine that works to defend Nixon, smear the people who dare talk about his misdeeds — including Roberts as Martha Mitchell, a member of his inner circle whom Nixon orders abducted and restrained so she doesn’t talk to press about Watergate — and lay the groundwork for the Republican Party as we know it. It’s a horror show, and its excessive grime isn’t easy to wash off. —R.H.
The new George Pelecanos–David Simon HBO miniseries, part of what Simon has described as the PBS portion of HBO, both continues in the tradition of The Wire and twists its legacy. There are moments when We Own This City veers aggressively toward undisguised, unmodulated lectures: Characters stop what they’re doing to deliver lengthy tirades about the futility of the drug war and the emptiness of stats-driven drug policies. By the end, though, We Own This City nevertheless still manages to find the uncomfortable, complicated, dissonant notes that characterize Simon and Pelecanos’s best work. There are enormous systems at work, and there are also specific human lives affected by those systems. No TV creators are better at expressing the way that both of those realities can be true even when they are in direct contradiction. —K.V.A.
No TV show can fully explain the entire history of Mormonism as a religious ideology and political movement; trace the violence, racism, and misogyny within its traditions; and connect that lineage to a true-crime framework with frustrated detectives, evasive suspects, and intracommunal tension. It is too much, and Under the Banner of Heaven doesn’t always pull off the balance. But the fact that the FX on Hulu adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s nonfiction best seller mostly finds a way to connect all these threads into a grimly thought-provoking portrait of religious fundamentalism in America is laudable, and the ensemble’s performances make the dense, time-hopping series compelling. Series creator Dustin Lance Black makes a thoughtful change to Krakauer’s source material by inventing two detectives, portrayed by Andrew Garfield and Gil Birmingham, to investigate the murders of young wife and mother Brenda Laffety (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her infant daughter, and that entry point into this story allows Under the Banner of Heaven to fulfill some cop-show traditions while subverting others. Sometimes the flashbacks to Mormon leaders like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young are jarring, and the perspective shifts between various characters can be choppy, but for the most part, Under the Banner of Heaven nails the pacing and tone required to try to make sense of this horrific crime. Garfield in particular knows what he’s doing — watch as his shoulders slump over the course of the season, as his line deliveries get sharper, and as he realizes that the way of life he grew up in might not be as pure as he thought. The dread he feels, we do too. —R.H.
Technically a light comedy about the members of an early-2000s girl band reuniting and giving the group a second shot in middle age, Girls5Eva is actually medicine, the kind of silliness that soothes the soul. Like just about every show that’s come from the Tina Fey–Robert Carlock school of comedy — Fey and Carlock are executive producers, and series creator Meredith Scardino previously wrote with them on Netflix’s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt — Girls5Eva is coated wall-to-wall with pop-culture send-ups and rapid-fire jokes, both verbal and visual. In season two, all four of the actors behind the girls — Renée Elise Goldsberry, Sara Bareilles, Busy Philipps, and Paula Pell — have an even stronger grasp on their characters’ quirks, and the songs they craft, including “B.P.E.” and “Bend Not Break” (inspired by a knee injury, obviously), are as absurd as they are catchy. (Continued kudos to composer Jeff Richmond and everyone, including Bareilles, who contributed to the music.) Even the throwaway lines on this show — “I have brain fog, and I have brain fog,” Bareilles’s Dawn tells a doctor — are a riot. The world is seriously crazy right now, making Girls5Eva’s hilarious strain of crazy feel like therapeutic treatment. —J.C.